Monday, October 17, 2011

The Great Squash Famine of 2010

The 19th century Irish taught us an important lesson about diversifying our diets. But in the spiteful vitriolic months of a New England winter, there sure aren't a lot of options for a girl trying to eat more or less local.

When my sundresses start to hang stale in the closet and light summer winds turn bitter, I stockpile winter vegetables. Every market I happen upon finds me picking up a random butternut here, a bundle of carrots there. This year, for example, I've been consistently adding miscellaneous potatoes of every shape and color into a low-lying drawer in my kitchen.

But I don't cook them yet. An odd twist, maybe, but I have always had an almost Buddhist devotion to delaying this comfort food gratification, to forestalling the inevitable moment when I dive headfirst into kale and kabocha, bidding adieu to most things refreshing and light until the tulip bulbs start their peek-a-boo game again.

Last winter, however, tragedy struck my household. My landlord decided the winter was the best time to gut the bathroom completely, leaving me not only with a dust storm fit for a Steinbeck novel but also some dim contractors who turned the thermostat up all the way while working. I escaped to my mom's during this literal hot mess, and upon my return found cataclysm in my market reserves, a pantry despoiled of its winter staples. You see, these hard, sturdy vegetables can be kept for months without refrigeration--but they must be stored in a cool, dark place. Exposed to the high heat of my apartment, the skins had lost their stiffness, bizarre dark spots had cropped up, and some even fell apart under their own weight when I attempted to pick them up.

A calamity of heartbreaking caliber, indeed, but not a lesson unlearned. I've never understood how to use that old adage about counting your chickens before they hatch, but some aspect of it has got to apply here. And this winter, though a healthy amount of delay has proved a hard habit to break, I am getting these winter staples involved in my kitchen larks sooner than later.

And with that in mind, you get kind of a two-fer deal on this post. I dipped my toe in last week on one of our first truly cold days. It was raining, and Whole Foods had pretzel rolls just hanging out in big wicker baskets by the cheese counter, like it was no big deal. Those made it home with me, miraculously dry despite my half hour wait for the bus amid a monsoon. I sliced up a little bit of everything in my cheese drawer (Asiago, brie, gouda, cheddar), poured some premade Imagine broccoli & leek soup into roasted acorn squash halves, and served my man a fancy fall version of grilled cheese & tomato soup (he hates tomatoes).

The success of that dish goaded me on, and I guess you could say I went for a push on my next try (I know nothing about poker, though, so maybe I'm misusing that). I filled up two whole sheet pans with beets, carrots, pumpkin, red kuri squash, and some tart green apples I'd picked up in Danvers a few weeks back. They don't need much more than olive oil, S&P, and maybe some pie spices or molasses if you're feeling bold. Meanwhile, I threw into my rice cooker a mess of leftover grains & wines—mostly couscous, bulgur & reisling. It was risky to go with a sweet wine, so I blended it with water and mixed in a handful of dried sour cherries halfway through.

All that remained was to grab a big bowl, mix the winter veg with the grains, and do some accessorizing with chopped pan-roasted cashews, fresh arugula, nutritional yeast and a little more balsamic & olive oil.

The moral of this story is twofold. First of all, I need to work on trusting my ancestors a little more, since clearly the Irish's bout with blight taught me nothing. Second, I now know that these standbys are a little more jeopardous than I once imagined. Rather than take them for granted, we've got to enjoy them while we can. You can't let your preparation for the future hamper your life now, so if your body wants squash now, give it what it wants. This may mean resorting to Chilean imports from the supermarket sooner, but if you just nest on the goods now, you may never see them hatch at all.

...or something like that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Cupcakes

It all started with some janky looking bananas.

That picture might not be the most enticing start to a blog post, but I implore you, stay with me.

I'm not sure where I stand on ghosts or gods, but I have something beyond myself to thank for the bizarre alchemy that took place in my kitchen last night. When I brought that rotten fruit home, the foul smell alone had me ready to ditch 'em. No sweet bread is worth that odor, especially not boring banana.

But then. Suddenly my mind was possessed with the idea of making a not-so-boring banana bread. What goes with banana? This is where I believe the spirit world stepped in—and not just any spirit, but one dressed in a gold lamé suit, or perhaps blue suede shoes. Because what could pair better with bananas than peanut butter? You could think this is where the good idea ends, but you'd be wrong.

Enter Duncan Hines—maybe they should get some of the credit for this, too. Their snack size box of brownie mix is $1 at CVS right now, so naturally I keep one in my cupboards. What possessed me to involve that homely box in my adventures with the King, I can't say. But thank-someone it did.

I whipped up the brownie mix strictly adhering to the box directions, and made half of my beloved Martha's banana cupcake recipe in a separate bowl. Yet again, an urge the origins of which I still can't identify had me plopping three big spoonfuls of plain whole milk yogurt into each bowl. No turning back now.

Serendipitously, the two batters required the same oven temp and the same cook time. I put the brownie batter down first, figuring the fudgier texture would provide a base for the more viscous banana layer.

With nothing left but to bake 'em, pray to Elvis, and cross my fingers, I set about inventing a frosting to match this doozy. It couldn't just be any buttercream, though—to temper the sweetness of the cakes, it needed to provide some kind of tang, something zingy to cut the cloying peanut butter. So into the bowl went:

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (don't get fancy folks, the cheap stuff is best when it comes to frosting)
1/4 tsp vanilla
1/2 lb. of plain cream cheese at room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup of milk

Beat like hell until all the little bumps & curdles disappear and the word "lustrous" enters your mind, then set it aside. Do NOT refrigerate, or you'll have one heck of a time spreading it on the cakes.

Once the cakes started to brown a little on top, I pulled them immediately. Dry cake is one of my biggest fears, and I wasn't about to come this far to settle for anything less than decadent.

And decadent they were, once I passed the painful hour of waiting for them to cool (this is a crucial step—if the cakes aren't cool, the frosting will melt, refuse to set, and mainly create a giant mess of your counter). And because the King himself was clearly with me in this endeavor, of course I had to put Nutter Butters on top of them. And chocolate sauce.

My home audience and I had a little debate on the merits of whole Nutter Butter versus crumbled cookie. As an avid peruser of food blogs and fancy bakeries, I knew that the inedible garnish might produce a more dramatic & impressive final product (sorry, guys—I do manipulate you some, but it's mostly for good). The boys baking with me, however, made a persuasive point that you would want crumbles in every bite.

Personally I think those both look like something I'd set my computer down to go eat. But the boys were right about the textures—from top to bottom, this thing was a symphony of complementary consistencies. The fudgey brownie wasn't too crumbly or too chewy; the banana layer was so far from dry, it was almost creamy; the cool, tangy cream cheese kept the whole enterprise from being too rich; and of course, the Nutter Butters gave an absolutely indispensable crunch.

I'm a sucker for the cross-section. You can almost see the moisture! Beware, though—the moisture can turn on you in the fridge overnight, where it sort of robbed the cookies of their crunch. But Elvis can't be held responsible for anything that happened overnight in the fridge. Ghosts are unpredictable, and I'm not so self-involved to think the guy was haunting me. He was just stopping by, as I assume he does in many kitchens from time to time. He was merely providing inspiration, infusing my kitchen with a little rock 'n' roll.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Linni Eats the Upper West Side

Here's the thing. I know a lot about bagels.

If you're new to the blog, that's all you need to know. If you're a returning customer, expecting feasts crafted from a farmer's market bounty or certain verbose vegan rants, let me clue you in.

In January of 2010, I rode an enormous whim——roughly 747-sized——across the country to a place that eats just a touch different than southern California: Boston.

Now, New Englanders aren't still donning Pilgrim attire. They don't scarf turkeys with natives or gulp down clam chowder on the daily. That said, there's only one vegan pizza joint in the greater Boston area. For a girl fresh off the plane from L.A., that was about as staggering as if I'd been greeted at Logan Airport by John Adams himself.

I'm sounding pretty pretentious right now, huh? Well, the two years I've spent here have beaten a lot of that out of me. After becoming a work horse at a bagel shop and slinging artisan cheese at the Harvard Farmer's Market, veganism has become nothing more than a hobby I occasionally pick up for nostalgia's sake.

My pretentious urges now get funneled into cheese competitiveness and bagel snobbery. Shortly after developing these neuroses, the latter brought me to Absolute Bagels on Manhattan's Upper West Side. I'm not the biggest fan of the Big Apple, and I was sick of hearing customers from New York wear their bagel superiority on their sleeve (as they are wont to do with most things). I had to evaluate this hype machine myself. And according to Yelpers and local publications, Absolute was the place to beat.

They had all the staples, but I forced myself to ignore the sultry, dark pumpernickels in favor of a classic everything, with scallion cream cheese and tomato slices. And a last-minute salt bagel with plain. Both untoasted.

Do you see that tomato slice? I can't think of any reason for New York City to have better produce than Boston, geographically, but I suppose I can begrudgingly admit for a moment that their food standards a little higher. And...I guess that could mean better tomatoes. Whatever.

These bagels were coming out of the oven before my eyes, which boosted my confidence in ordering them sans toast (I've been told this is the only way, by many an ornery Manhattanite). Their cream cheese selection boasted impressive selections like olive, bacon, & strawberry (although I feel like New Yorkers at my shop in Boston forego these frills to insist on old standards like chive). Their tofu spreads, also surprisingly varied in flavors, were so thick, they put Boston's runny nonsense to shame.

I mean, look at that. If I was still adhering to strict vegan protocol, I might not have eaten that, just out of distrust.

So there you have it. Our Boston bagels are great——big, crusty on the outside when toasted and pillowy soft on the inside. The NY variety didn't have that crust, didn't exactly have a hole in the middle, and was certainly smaller, but was a dream to gnaw on, just sliced raw. I preferred the latter, but they both have great things going for them. Which is more than I can say for the cities they hail from.

Linni Eats Boston

Well, this is awkward.

It's been nearly two years since I made that pizza in my last post, and my stomach and I have come a long way since we last shared our adventures with you beautiful people.

You'll have to forgive my obvious attempt at flattery there, but there just isn't a graceful way to side-step a two year gap like that. I guess you'll have to forgive a few things, but I hope you can because I live in Boston now and we have so much to talk about.

...this is starting to sound a lot like a conversation I have with the pages of my journal once every few months.

I'm going to keep my new posts clean and separate from this clumsy (and hopefully endearing?) greeting. But I'm here again, so check back often! And just, ya know——don't call it a comeback.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Vegan Pizza 3: Squash Blossom & Heirloom Tomato

The South Pasadena Farmers' Market is a magical place. The quaint block, intersected by train tracks and lined with brick shops & cobblestone walkways is really too charming for its own good. And that's just the architecture, but then they throw in the babies. And, oh god, the babies. The sheer volume of young professionals who stroller up and down Mission Street, stinking of newfound wealth and naive wonder, is enough to make a cynic keel over and die right there, in front of Buster's Ice Cream Shop.

Luckily, I'm no such cynic. At least not on the days I get my pants charmed off by little towns like South Pas. So you can imagine my dismay when my schedule this fall barred me from witnessing this microcosm of happiness and fertility every Thursday. No, those days are now spent rushing in traffic from work (ironically, in South Pas) to Pasadena City College. My heart always leaps when I see a couple strolling away from the market, spears of baguettes and brussel sprouts sticking triumphantly out of their Radio Flyers. I gape longingly out at them through my car window, waiting for the street lights down Fair Oaks to change.

It's a sad state of affairs, really.

But! Last week! While I still had a freezer full of vegan pizza slices from Whole Foods' Black Friday sale, work let me off early enough to visit my old sampling grounds. I hit up all the usual spots, toothpicking a makeshift dinner for myself and buying a teeny kabocha squash along the way. I hadn't planned to purchase anything else, until the squash blossoms.

I am always looking for new things to do with these, ever since I realized they are probably the best quesadilla filling after cheese. So what else has been carby and cheesy in my life lately? VEGAN PIZZA.

The charade could have stopped there, but the vendor took forever to notice me. During my wait to purchase 5 measly blossoms, I noticed the beautiful heirloom tomatoes perched beneath them. Pizza. Tomatoes. Obviously.
I'm thinking you can probably guess what I did when I got home from class... was delicious.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Soyrizo Chili

For dinner last night, I whipped up a bowl of my winter stand-by soyrizo chili. I used to make this stuff by the truckload last winter, when emotionally unavailable men and my fears of the future were failing to keep me warm at night. I'd make one giant batch and store it in tiny containers in the freezer, like little pockets of hope saved up for the more biting nights.
I don't know if it was spring weather that made me grow tired of it, but this habit eventually came to a halt. It wasn't until last week, shivering in the Trader Joe's fridge aisle, that I spotted the soyrizo and decided to give it another go.

As soon as I added the fake pork to my oil-onion-garlic combo spitting in the pan, the smell of senior year on Armadale hit me like a load of textbooks upside the head. I hadn't realized I missed it, but man alive, the nostalgia that came from the smell of ever-softening carrots and kidney beans bubbling up with chipotle paste was enough to make my eyes water. And no, it wasn't from the onions--I had my goggles on.The sweet potato boat was a last-minute decision, but one I'm pretty proud of. I think it's safe to say I'm about to go on another chili binge--next time I pop one of these out of the freezer, it's going on my vegan wheat cornbread!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vegan Pizza Part 2: Cranberry Bacon

In celebration of Whole Foods 50% vegan pizza sale, my experimentation posts continue!

Last time
I put avocado and tempeh on top of my whole wheat-black garlic-mixed Daiya pie. This time, it was Fake Bacon! And because the meal didn't seem complete with just that, I reheated some roasted kabocha squash from my work, a winter vegetable I literally could eat every day--I know this because I've had it the past 4 days. The cranberry sauce was also from my work, and it made its way onto the pizza at one point, with pretty delicious results. But I'm not that into gussying up Daiya too much--it's a great topping in its own right, and sometimes (most times) I want it to be the overpowering taste.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bad Apples? Make Butter

I recently bought a 2 lb. bag of granny smith apples from Trader Joe's for $2.99. This seemed like a steal, until I got them home and realized they were riddled with bruises. Rather than toss the bad seeds, my mission became clear—I had to get my booty into baking gear.

Now, maybe it's just me, but I feel like apple pie is the baking equivalent of a technical writing manual: boring, stagnant, and dry as a well-done burger. There's nothing alive about an apple pie. It's pretty difficult to mess one up, and while you can pony around with a lattice or some cheddar cheese, the formula is pretty set. Don't get me wrong, they're a damn tasty American past-time. But they leave very little room for experimentation.*

I considered crisps, crumbles, and a tarte tatin, but those things are just apple pie that's thrown on a suit jacket to go out for an evening on the town. A pie sprinkled with oatmeal or tossed upside down is still a pie, guys. So what to do? How obvious. Apple butter.

But because I can never just keep my creativity in check for two seconds to test out classic recipes, I had to substitute balsamic vinegar and bourbon for the apple cider most recipes called for. Why use apple cider in something that's already going to taste like apples? That's just asking to be tweaked. And tweak, I did, with surprisingly professional-looking results, and a house that will smell like cinnamon apples and booze for days. That's a recipe for holiday cheer if I ever smelled one.

Balsamic Bourbon Apple Butter

Roughly 2 lbs. small granny smith apples
1/2 cup boiling water
Some generous splashes of balsamic and bourbon
A couple tablespoons of brown sugar, if you like
Pumpkin pie spice

Start by chopping up your apples into small cubes, maybe 1/2 inch in size. Leave the skin and as much of the core as you can while still discarding seeds and stems--the pectin is stored in the skin and the core, and that's crucial for keeping this from turning to liquidy mush. Put the cubes in a pot of water—mine was already boiling from tea I had just made, but you can just heat it all up together, too, I assume. Splash some bourbon and balsamic on top, but not enough to submerge the apples entirely in liquid. Once it's all boiling together, lower the heat a smidge but maintain a low boil for about 20 minutes, until there are no apple chunks that you can't crush with a fork and the liquid is almost entirely dissolved.

Add the spices, some sugar if you think it needs it (do a taste test first), and a little more of the booze and vinegar if you like. Once it's thickened up and there's no liquid left, remove from the heat and cool for a few minutes before putting in a blender. At this stage, you're welcome to stop and leave it. The chunks are just apple skins, which impart a strange texture by themselves but are totally fine to leave. If you want it smoother, just puree in the blender until silky. It's pretty stellar warm, if you want to go ahead and use some right away for toast or oats. Otherwise, store in the fridge or freezer. I've heard this stuff adds a really interesting flavor and texture to vegan baked goods, and web rumors have also come by way about plopping a few spoonfuls into the filling of pumpkin (or even apple) pie. Experiment away!

*I have, since writing this, dreamt up a million new tricks to try with apple pie, maybe to prove to myself that no food is boring if you've got the moxy to change it. From bacon lattices to curry powder to whatever the heck that kid in the American Pie movies did, I realize now how close-minded of me it is to think apple pie leaves no room for exploration.